Poor man’s bronze. Spelter. White Metal. Zinc. French Bronze…Don’t let these interchangeable terms scare you away from collecting some very fine examples of art from that wonderful Art Deco Era, the 20’s through the 40’s.
Many artists worked in both bronze and spelter mediums to increase their market and make their pieces available to the ‘common man’. Pieces were often artist signed, either on the statue or on the base. . Common subject matter was a female or gymnast, along with animals. Diana the Huntress was a favorite theme of many artists, often paired with a dog or a deer. The women tended to be svelte, with long muscular limbs. They were often nude or semi-clad. The haute coulture featured gauntlet waists, rusching, gold colored designs on the clothing and elaborate hats.
Spelter is a zinc or zinc alloy metal. If scraped with another piece of metal, it will be silver or grey in color. (Bronze is yellow if scraped.) It is lighter in weight than bronze. The patina is applied via a painting process rather than with heat or acid as is bronze. Because spelter is a lighter metal than bronze, breaks are more common. Spelter can be glued or welded when repair is necessary. European spelter tends to be heavier than American spelter because of the alloys used and responds better to the welding process.
On the beautiful art deco spelter statues, the artists compensated for the lesser metal by situating the figures on elaborate bases of stone, usually marble, agate, and/or agate. They were often made into garniture sets or lamps. A single statue could be combined with another statue and a whole new piece of art was born. The faces and hands on the statues were of metal or more commonly “ivorene”, “French ivory”, or ”ivorine”. Don’t be confused by this play on words. It is not a form of ivory but rather a plastic. It can deteriorate if atmospheric conditions are too damp. A ”French Bronze” statue with a “French Ivory” face and hands is neither bronze nor ivory. But it is probably French!
You are used to using sight, touch feel and sometimes taste when acquiring antiques. But with the statues having French ivory faces, you must also use the sense of smell. If the face or hands smell like vinegar, invest your money elsewhere. That vinegar odor is a sign that the plastic is starting to shrink or deteriorate!
Diane D’Orazio has been an antique dealer favoring bronze and art deco statues for about 45 years. She and her husband Jim have purchased most of their statue in Europe. Art deco statues are found in abundance in their own home.